An early critic of political polls

Political pollsters are under the gun again. Some of them did not anticipate Donald Trump’s ability to win votes in the 2020 presidential election. The debate over the usefulness of polling continues to rage in the wake of November 3.

Let’s bring some historical perspective to this topic. Over at Politico, Rutgers University history David Greenberg introduces us to Lindsay Rogers, one of the earliest critics of political polling. Here is a taste:

At bottom…Rogers’ critique wasn’t methodological. At a philosophical level, he rejected the very idea that public opinion was measurable in the concrete way that the pollsters alleged. Public opinion was too inchoate to lend itself to precise measurement, even when fine-tuned with open-ended questions, scales of intensity and other methodological tweaks that had been introduced over the years. Public opinion, he said, wasn’t like distance or mass or other scientifically measurable phenomena; it had no freestanding existence apart from the operation of measuring it. Polling thus pretended to quantify the unquantifiable. Like others in the increasingly data-driven social sciences, Rogers charged, the public opinion analysts were following false gods of methodology. Properly understanding the public required not pseudo-scientific methods but human insight.

Along with many others, [pollster George] Gallup pushed back against Lindsay, calling him “the last of the arm-chair philosophers in this field.” And while Gallup’s name, owing to his lucrative polling business, endured through the decades, Rogers’ faded into relative obscurity. Political science became inexorably more quantitative and data-driven, leaving behind his concerns about its pretensions to scientific status. Moreover, the profits that commercial pollsters reaped — alongside, perhaps, Gallup-like hopes of improving democracy — ensured that the practice of election-season survey-taking would not subside anytime soon. Over the years, critics from both the world of journalism (columnist Mike Royko, polemicist Christopher Hitchens) and academia (political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, journalism historian W. Joseph Campbell) have kept alive Rogers’ skepticism, but on the whole Americans have continued to be seduced every election season by the pollsters’ allure.

Read the entire piece here.